You open your eyes. You’re in a window seat of a plane. The throb of the engines follows you out of your travel-stupor, where it became the sound of a washing machine in your childhood home – you were faking being sick, lying in bed listening to weekday chores. Now you’re twenty-six again. You look out the window, and as the plane lowers through cloud, the lights of millions of homes illuminate the sky. This is Mexico City (or D.F. [“de effe”] called by locals [who are known as chilangos]) and it is much more immense than you imagined. You think, is this the capital of the world? Do all roads lead here? It stretches out as far as you can see; an aurora of orange, red, white and blue. It’s intimidating. Below you are over 20 million people – more than your entire island continent – and they all seem to have cars: lanes of white headlights, lanes of red taillights. Moving inch by inch; they look like they’ve stopped from this altitude. In your dream, the street outside your childhood home was still: you could hear birdcalls and road works blocks away. You counted four cars drive by in an hour. And then back wheels of the plane grind into position: you’re finally here.
You wake up.
You grip onto the handlebar in the car of your amiga as she manoeuvres it in and out of cabs, police cars, and trucks with families propped up in the back trailer. There is no ‘zip’ procedure to merge, there is no indicating to change lanes; everything is chaos, but instead of fear, you feel exhilarated. The roads either stampede in ruler-straight lines towards distant volcanoes, or cheekily loop up and over each other like a bowl of udon. Some roads are two-storey high: your amiga laments that instead of building a more extensive public transport system, or improving the current pavement, they spent the money building up and uglifying the skyline. From the top storey of these roads, you can see the dome of smog blanketing the metropolis, tucked in at the edges of a vast valley. Your head is spinning, but they tell you it’s altitude sickness – Mexico City is one of the highest cities in the world. Your amiga beeps the horn as a Mercedes almost sideswipes the car into a street vendor.
It’s night time: you want to open your eyes wider – to see it all.
The glary, warm white sky invites you outside. You pass taquerias where you see maize flour dough squeezed and flattened into the staple of the national cuisine, tortillas; flat bread bursting with a corn flavour you’ve never tasted before in the horrible imitations available at home. You want to sample it all: every colour, every flavour available. You go to markets where there are bags of red, purple, and green dried chillies, next to bags of black, blue, and white rice, next to bags of Whiskas. You go to markets strewn with piñatas and alebrijes (bead art), hammocks, hats, Dia de los muertos (Day of the Dead) and Christmas decorations, including white baby Jesuses and black baby Jesuses, and baby Jesus dressed up as a doctor. The colours and patterns are your style: bright, garish, beautiful, particular and expressive. Your favourites, blue and orange, are everywhere. You go to Frida Kahlo’s house and like one of Rivera’s (La quebrada) the best, and then the lights go out, and the gardens inspire some creative photography using a bronzed mirror while you wait for the lights to come back on. The Mexican museum workers have a laugh, <<no pasa nada>>, and watch visitors, like you, chase a cat behind a pyramid.
Your friends from different parts of your life are here. They’re out of context. You gaze at their faces and are filled with wonder at how they kept on living outside of your sphere; lives lived and lives met in front of el fuente de los coyotes, and lives soon to leave and travel on a different road. They’re from home, but it’s not theirs any more. They meet your friends – your amiga and her novio (boyfriend) and her compañera de casa (housemate) – your friends from this sphere, this part of your viaje (trip). You start speaking both languages. Español to the Mexicans, English to the Australians, Spanglish when it gets too hard, or when you forget. You remember the film, The Science of Sleep, with Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal complaining that when his boss switches from French to English it makes him feel schizophrenic. You feel overwhelmed, but healthy. You try to make mistakes; the mistakes you always tell your students to make. You sometimes make the mistake of not making mistakes. Now you go crazy. But your friends are here: you smile. You’re here.
You sleep well.
You have trouble pronouncing the long Mexican names for places. The letters scramble together and the sounds garble out of your mouth; you murmur the last syllable in defeat. You learn you can remember how Xochimilco sounds like Chokky Milk-o, though the ‘x’ is more of a ‘z’ than ‘ch’. You’re there, on a trajinera (barge), channelling ancient canals, watching birds and dogs, and teenagers on other barges, celebrating birthdays, mariachi bands, and people kneeling in front of shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe, rearranging flowers (like the big, dragon-like nochebuena) and figurines of Caucasian Arab kings. The Virgin’s birthday is next week, and you’re told she was a pre-Hispanic goddess co-opted by the Catholics and turned into Mexico’s most beloved and exalted celibate. Her shrines are everywhere – the abundance of small ritual reminds you of Japan. In fact, you feel a weird affinity with both countries and start pondering a future where your life is split between the two. You are then taken to a pulqueria, a bar that sells a Mexican speciality, pulque, a drink made from Cactus juice, a slimy drink that continues fermenting inside you after you drink it. After two, you crave chocolate milk, or something less intense.
You sleep badly.
Trips to the bathroom.
You stop drinking.
The night at El Zinco – an exclusive jazz club in el centro of D.F. A night you looked forward to most. You see three of your favourite Mexican musicians, and meet two of them. You daydreamed about at least hearing them on the radio, but now you’ve actually met them. You’re here and you drink in the experience, sipping it carefully, lest you spill the moment.
Next moment you find yourself on top of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, staring down at the steep steps, then out across to the Pyramid of the Moon, smaller and prettier. Teotihuacan has unknown origins, some claiming it was a mixed ethnic state, but at the time of its zenith it was one of the largest cities in the world – much like its present day descendant. You love the remnants of murals featuring the feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, and the rain god, Tlaloc, and jaguars, and shells, and convoluted ideas of the shape of the world. You imagine the site as it used to be – painted white and red, glary in the sunlight, mighty and beautiful. You wonder why we think of ancient cultures as exotic, and long to be zapped back in time to spend one boring day along the Avenue of the Dead. You curse the Eurocentric history you were fed: here lay a great civilization like China and Egypt – all human ingenuity scattered like seeds across all continents. You thank your lucky stars to be here with your amiga and her amiga – both restorative artists, who help you decipher the history of the place and share the mysteries of their Aztec past.
You feel empty without your own. At least none attached to place.
You always dreamed of coming to Mexico. This is your blue and orange fantasy.
You wake up again. You’re still here. It’s just as you imagined. It’s just the way it was before you fell asleep…